Six nuclear questions for the next president
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, proposes six questions about nuclear weapons that journalists and citizens could profitably ask the 2016 presidential candidates.
1. Should the United States threaten to use nuclear weapons against innocents in cities?
In a recent study, over four-fifths of Republicans and nearly half of Democrats polled said that they would support the nuclear destruction of Tehran if Iran attacked a US aircraft carrier, killing its more than 2000 US crewmen. The poll respondents backed this action knowing that Iran had no nuclear bombs and that the strike would kill 20 million Iranians. Reflecting this sentiment, at least two Republican presidential candidates have said they would be willing to use nuclear weapons first – in one case, even against densely populated targets in Europe. Meanwhile, those eager to reduce nuclear arms support a “deterrence only” strategy under which the United States would deter nuclear-armed adversaries by explicitly threatening to target their largest cities with a relative few nuclear weapons. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have opposed adopting such strategies as militarily unnecessary and ethically and legally untenable. Do you believe the United States should kill or threaten to kill millions of innocents in cities with nuclear weapons? If not, would you be willing to back the Joint Chiefs’ view and pledge not to wage or threaten such attacks?
2. Should the United States support a policy of launching its nuclear missiles on warning of a nuclear attack, or make additional investments to assure its land-based nuclear forces can survive a first strike?
The putative motive for the United States’ current “launch on warning” policy is the fear that with increasing Russian and Chinese missile accuracies, our ground-based missiles are becoming more vulnerable to a first strike. That is why the president is always accompanied by an officer with the “football,” ready to transmit the nuclear launch codes on short notice. The risk in launch on warning, though, is obvious: The United States might launch its missiles after a mistaken warning, needlessly provoking a nuclear war. Alternative approaches include spending to harden existing missile silos or making the missile fleet mobile, by road, rail, or even small coastal submarines, and assuring that these missiles’ command and control systems cannot be knocked out. Do the candidates propose to maintain the United States’ launch on warning policy? If not, what do they propose instead?
3. Should the United States try to secure more limits on nuclear-capable missiles or abandon the notion of limits?
Both candidates claim the spread of nuclear weapons is the United States’ top security threat. Certainly, the number of countries with nuclear-capable long-range missiles is growing. Because they can carry nuclear warheads, the United States needs either to defend against them or knock them out. China’s arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles is now the world’s largest. Russia, meanwhile, has been found in violation of the missiles limits contained in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and is developing ever more advanced nuclear missile systems. In response, the United States, Russia, and China are all researching new nuclear-capable missile strike systems. In light of these trends, some defense experts, including former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, favor reaching new arms control agreements limiting nuclear-capable missiles. Yet, other security experts argue that the United States should break out of the missile limits, starting with those contained in the INF Treaty. For each of the candidates, which course would you pursue?
4. The possibility that Japan or South Korea may opt for nuclear weapons – long considered a taboo subject in both countries – is now openly discussed in both. What, if anything, should the United States do about the build-up of nuclear explosive plutonium in these countries, and in China?
Republican nominee Donald Trump had recently asserted that the South Korea and Japan need to pay the United States more for defending them, and that the United States might be better off if Japan and South Korea went nuclear to counterbalance North Korea and China. The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, argued that she would strengthen US-Japanese-South Korean security ties to discourage Japan and South Korea from acquiring nuclear arms. Neither, however, considered that in the name of promoting their civilian nuclear power programs, China, South Korea, and Japan all are planning to produce thousands of tons of the “peaceful” nuclear explosive plutonium by extracting much of it from US-origin spent (used) nuclear fuel. So far the Obama administration has not opposed this development, setting the stage for all three countries to acquire the nuclear explosives for thousands of nuclear weapons. As President George W. Bush noted in 2004, extracting plutonium from spent fuel is unnecessary for civilian nuclear power and is highly uneconomic. Do the candidates believe the United States should discourage such “peaceful” reprocessing in East Asia or not?
5. Should the United States continue to subsidize the export of nominally American nuclear power technology?
Ever since the early 1950s and Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program, the United States has generously shared “peaceful” nuclear technology for power production. Much of this technology is identical to the technology underlying nuclear weapons fissile production programs. This has been made manifestly clear in experience with the nuclear programs in India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Taiwan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and Iraq, all of which used their “peaceful” programs as covers for nuclear weapons efforts. Originally, subsidies for US nuclear exports were rationalized on grounds that they supported US industry and American jobs. But the US nuclear manufacturing sector has all but vanished. The two principle reactor design firms – General Electric and Westinghouse – are now really foreign firms and surrender 80–100% of their export earning to foreign shareholders. This year, Congress blocked the US Export-Import Bank from financing large foreign projects, including nuclear ones, finding it to be an unworthy form of corporate welfare. As president, what position would Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton take on continuing federal subsidies for such nuclear exports?
6. Should the Unites States drop the official pretense that Israel does not have nuclear weapons?
One of the first press questions President Obama received when he entered office concerned Israeli nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama dodged the question, not admitting Israel had nuclear arms. In light of the challenge in containing Iran’s nuclear program and continued Middle Eastern calls for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, is it in America’s interest to continue to deny that Israel has these weapons, when, according to many sources, it has them?
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.